Transparency is an oft overlooked piece of the development puzzle where game design is concerned. Certainly the Kickstarter era has opened this up in many ways, but it’s in the Triple-A space that we’re made to wait for controlled information, making any trickle of news of a feature a larger part of our daily consumption of development information, regardless how trivial it might actually be.
It’s always enlightening then, when a rather large developer steps up to the candid plate, to fill an empty field with truthful dingers. Blizzard is both a notorious keeper of secrets, and a sieve of development enthusiasm -- depending on the product. It is also a reactive studio in the positive, realising first and foremost that without its ardent fans and top-line consumers, it would be shrunk to nothing. It’s at this point I should probably point out that the company’s successful release
of Diablo III ended up being anything but triumphant.
That Blizzard continued to support the original vision for Diablo III speaks less about how they were initially reacting to growing concern over the direction of the game, and more about the company’s faith in its products and developers. Diablo III game director Jay Wilson may have had a rough ride
during and after the game’s launch which may or may not have lead to his eventual departure
from Diablo, but in the handful of times I spoke with him, he stood by his team and their collective vision for the game. It was an admirable idea, on paper, to introduce the Auction House, but it’s even more admirable that the blight is being taken down. The reasons for this are many, but lead level designer Kevin Martens put it best when I asked him about its departure, suggesting that if the only reason you’re playing Diablo is to collect items “you’re doing it wrong”.
“Doing it right” then, could be a way to perceive the development of Diablo III: Reaper of Souls. As mentioned above, the Auction House has been foreclosed, the Crusader Class is an obvious throwback to the fan-favourite Paladin of the older games and Westmarch represents that dark, Gothic feel fans were screaming for as far back as when the vanilla game was announced (that’s an obvious play on words there, too). Loot has been transformed into a more rewarding system and, so, by all accounts vocal expectations of the disgruntled masses have been broached. But this is where we come full-circle; where the team’s “vision” for the Diablo namesake as a whole is revealed and it’s not all throwback and fan-service. Rather Reaper of Souls represents a forward momentum for the game that relies on the single most important factors of the original series entries -- variety, replayability and fun.
The difference here, however, is that the team is aware of this philosophy. It could be argued that Diablo 1 and 2 lucked
their way into these realms, that the default design meant countless hours of rehacking dungeons for the myriad fans who jumped on board Blizzard’s darkest release. Anecdotally then, the Auction House would be an example of a newish
team misunderstanding a dynamic facet of the original games where trading was concerned. In place of a player-driven system, real-money trading was curbed to come in-house but it felt more like forced regulation than anything. So its closure is a testament to stripping back design of peripheral activities in the game to those initial core principles and, in all honesty, to simply let the fans drive the game’s future as the product it’s released as.
“Expansion” now becomes a key word in all of this, because rather than tacking on whole uncertain components to the product (as would be the case with a PvP competitive mode), the studio has decided to expand on the replayability, to expand on the randomness of the game’s systems and levels and to expand on the discoverability of loot, monsters and the world itself. And this idea isn’t baked into the campaign, it’s a separate but accessible series of modes and sub-modes that aren’t instantly rammed down your throat -- the idea here is for the player to build the gameplay style and approach that works best for them. It’s about having enough on offer to build a dynamic and organic experience around replayability, variety and fun.
“So [Adventure Mode] is our sandbox mode and it’s taking everything that you’ve seen in Acts 1 - 4 and 5 and opening it up so you can go anywhere and slay anything at any time,” explains senior level design Larra Paolilli. “We have [a new map system] which is really cool and it gives you a sense of place -- you can see [that] all of the different areas that you’ve been to in each Act are connected and you can drop into any Act and then go one level deeper [on the map] and see all the zones that are in each Act. And you can go to any of them at any time. You can play by yourself, you can play with your friends, and the cool thing about this mode is that you can dictate your play session with how you want to play: you can pop in on lunch and play for, you know, 15-30 minutes if you wanted and get pretty well rewarded for doing so. Or you can play for longer periods of time.”
The Adventure stuff isn’t just about trouncing for new loot though, or just getting your monster-slaying out in short bursts (though no one is stopping it from being that reason, if that’s how you’re inclined) -- there’s value here in subtle and dynamic forms.
“The other good thing about [Adventure Mode] is that you can go anywhere and just farm if you want, but for players who want a bit more of a directed experience, we have some new features such as Bounties which is a bit more of a directed experience,” she continues. “But you [still] choose where you want to go; you go back to the map and Bounties are designated by gold exclamation points, and those are completely randomised each time you come in -- these level areas may or may not have Bounties [and] what they are will be different. So it’s random content riddled throughout the game.”
Adding to the randomness, in dynamic form though, is the idea that there are now daily challenges offering bonuses on top of the system already in place, which add another layer of variety to an already intuitive system. They encourage players to explore the entire game-world so they don’t stick to a single area or location, and sit nicely alongside the much talked about randomly-generated Nephalem Rifts, which provide the strict monster hunting loot runs that players have been clamoring for. These Nephalem Rifts are also a bit of a visual showcase for the game’s new lighting system -- a feature Larra enthusiastically details at my first drop of the word “lighting”.
“Speaking of lighting
, one of the other Adventure Mode features is the Nephalem Rifts,” Paolilli explains. “Those are 10-15 minute multi-level dungeons and what they do is they just really maximise all of the randomness, including the lighting. It’ll take tile-sets and apply random lighting to them, and random monsters, so you’ll see… I go in there and it’s surprising, like, “that looks good that way”. But they [Nephalem Rifts] are one of the best ways to get loot.”
“Let me talk about loot for a second here,” chimes Kevin. “Loot has been completely overhauled and, same thing: Replayability and variety has been our focus on this. We also wanted to just give fewer, better pieces of gear, so I’ve been demoing this character all day and he doesn’t yet have a full set. When things do drop for you, they’re much more likely to be for your characters -- we have a smart drop system. So I’m getting +Strength and +Damage -- Strength is the primary stat of [the Crusader]; I could just as likely get +Strength and +Vitality, and it’s not all gear, so occasionally +Dexterity or something like that for another class will get in there, but a lot more of the pieces I find are going to be appropriate for my character than they were before.
“That was one of the rough edges of randomness in Diablo III,” he adds. “That anything could drop on anything. That’s replayable, but in a frustrating way. So we’re trying to make this replayable, but in a less frustrating way.”
“The way that we’ve presented this to the player, I think it feels like a Command Centre,” Larra concludes on Adventuring with a smile. “You can come in and get a lay of the land: see what’s available or what our bonuses are if you want to partake in those, and choose where you want to go first instead of having to do a specific run or play a certain way.”
It’s one thing to add the Adventure Mode, its subsequent sub-systems and new loot rules, and another entirely where a new class is concerned. At first thought, the Crusader obviously draws on comparisons to the Paladin, but he’s much more than that, and is also no easy task to implement, regardless of his cool backstory.
“So the first thing -- and this is the question every Blizzard team asks for every feature, essentially -- is, what is the fantasy?” Martens explains of the Crusader’s development origins. “He’s gotta have some core fantasy. The Crusader needs to do something that no one else does and needs to do it particularly well. So we [started] with that and we knew that it was going to be a melee character, and then the Paladin thing came in; heavy armour and using the shield as a weapon… so it sort of developed over time. And then of course, once you dial into the fantasy, figuring out how he tactically sits differently from everybody else so that he doesn’t just feel like another look and variety of visuals on the powers that ultimately all do the same thing… there’s nothing more expensive than a character class for us; nothing takes more time, nothing takes more people -- it’s an enormously expensive thing because everything needs to feel so different.”
“I think the great thing about focusing on the fantasy is that when you bring that to the entire team it really gets people involved, and everybody really buys into the fantasy,” Larra continues. “There’s a great synergy that happens where ideas come from all over the team and people are really pumped and I think that the Crusader is a really good example of how that came together.”
Passion for the game’s narrative and lore, whether it’s tied up in direct storytelling or just the design of a particular part of the world is so ingrained in these cats, that they talk about it like it’s an everyday discussion over a coffee. To them, Malthael is a real guy who happens to be particularly evil, but because of their proximity to him they also see a side of him I doubt any punter will. In many ways, they feel for his misplaced sense of duty -- it’s almost a form of Stockholm Syndrome.
“Our game director, Josh [Mosqueira] has what he calls “the holy trifecta”; because this is an expansion and we’re not trying to do everything at once, we want to have a perfect combination of Hero, Villain and Setting, and [Reaper of Souls] is all that stuff together,” The villain is the Angel of Death and who doesn’t want to defeat Death? It’s a great fantasy. The knight in battle-scarred armour -- the holy knight -- seems like a perfect fit: tactically he fills a neat role; he is a modern battle tank as a medieval warrior, so when I say that, I mean we wanted a heavily armoured character but we didn’t want him to feel slow and lumbering, so the shield -- that massive shield -- has got things like Blessed Shield where he throws it, right. He’s got War Horse so he can move fast. And, like a tank, we wanted to give him something that Barbarians and Monks don’t have, and that is more ranged attacks.”
Some of these are obvious offshoots of the Paladin; homages to favourite attacks from that class, meaning Blizzard knows its fanbase and the series’ roots. And while there is a clear parallel that can be drawn between the two classes, it’s important to realise that the Crusader’s entry into the franchise is more or less a nail in the Paladin’s coffin. Not to be seen as a slight to the old games, however, rather as a sign that there’s more to this rich universe than what we’ve come to know so far.
“Three games plus a couple of expansions have frankly not been enough to show off what Diablo is. Look at all those empty spots,” Martens concludes excitedly darting his finger around the map on his monitor. “So Sanctuary as a world -- and this [Diablo III: Reaper of Souls] map -- existed from the beginning, you know, from the Diablo 1 days. There is so much we haven’t shown.”
Kosta Andreadis also contributed to parts of this feature. You can find his extensive Diablo III: Reaper of Souls closed beta gameplay diaries in the following locations: Diary #1, Diary #2, Diary #3 and Diary #4.
Diablo III: Reaper of Souls is due for release on PC and Mac March 25